I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about how to thrive when the OFSTED team arrives!


Before you go any further (if you haven’t already) you really need to read my post on preparing for OFSTED which I now know to be (almost) spot on! There are two things I would change. Firstly I would let any ITT lessons go on regardless. If teachers are planning to be absent for a CPD course, however, I would get them to cancel – that worked for us and one of our stay-at-homers was observed teaching an Outstanding lesson! Secondly, I would make our SEF even shorter. Caroline Barlow, @BarlowCaroline, of the Weald School took our SEF model, pared it down, and set up hyperlinks to the evidence, rather than summarising the evidence in the body of the SEF, and the Weald was judged Outstanding back in October! There are other great blogs for preparing for helping you prepare, especially these from Stephen Tierney and Mary Myatt.
There is only success and learning. It’s pointless repeating what I wrote in my OFSTED preparation post; what follows is what I learnt about the actual two days of inspection.
Be careful of what you SEF for because you’ll more than likely get it. If we had bid for an Oustanding judgement we’d have battled over two days and ended with Good. The limited scope for an Additional Inspector to show discretion and the tough new Grade Descriptors combined to make our Good inspection judgement astrologically predestined.
It’s mostly about your examination results over the past three years. I’m sure other schools in other contexts will have had a different experience but what follows is written in the context of our school which has improved the KS4 headline figure by 20% since 2010. Whilst it had its frustrations, it was the least stressful inspection I’ve experienced.
Make sure that everything which you are in control of beforehand is nailed-down-sorted. We made just two preparation errors and they were both exposed during the two days. Sweating the detail is worth it; get it all nailed-down-sorted, then when they arrive there are just a few (hopefully minor) things which are beyond your control.
It’s all in the teaching. When I got home at the end of the second day after it had all gone swimmingly, I put my arms around my wife Louise saying, Thanks for putting up with me these last two days; she pulled away and replied, More like the last two bloody years! When I recounted that tale to the whole staff when we were celebrating at the end of school on the Friday, they laughed in recognition…the point is, however, that over those two years we weren’t preparing for inspection, we were merely becoming a much better school through a relentless drive to improve our teaching.
Just to reassure you…is the title of the guidance I gave a copy of to every single teacher a few weeks ago and again at my end of our pre-inspection briefing on inspection notification day. It helped colleagues focus hard on what really matters – the quality of teaching. For a Word version, click below:
just to reassure you
Our Inspection Team were very courteous. They appeared genuinely committed to discovering what was good about our school. If you are clear-minded about the process they have to follow and the narrowness of the parameters they have to work within, then it is possible to connect with the people involved. Relationships, relationships, relationships…
I think you have to be principled but not naïve. Of course you still need a SEF. Of course you still need lessons plans. Of course you should provide seating plans and student data targets. I think advice to the contrary isn’t at all helpful. Official OFSTED processes are still not being consistently adhered to by all Inspection Teams, so just take a pragmatic approach and be prepared.
Actively guide the inspectors to the evidence; they just don’t have time to find it themselves.
Once it starts it just rolls out very swiftly…click below for a copy of the schedule for the two days:
Less is more. I put together a data file which contained all the data you could want for: 2012; 2013; current; predicted for 2014; Pupil Premium; student destinations. They took one look at the contents page and didn’t even open it! I live by the less is more mantra, but still made such a schoolboy error! Now, it was, on reflection, a hugely beneficial thing to have done because I knew the data inside out. And whenever a piece of data was requested we could produce it in seconds; at worst in minutes.
Have proof that your data predictions are good. I could show the Lead Inspector a document which I gave to Governors last May which predicted our headline figure this summer would be 74% 5 A*-C GCSE grades including English and mathematics; the actual figure turned out to be 75%. That helped the Lead Inspector trust our predictions for the 2014 examination results.
Our Governors were asked the following questions:
1. How is the school doing?
2. Do you know how the Pupil Premium is spent?
3. How do you challenge the SLT and how has your challenge been acted upon?
4. Do you meet and challenge middle leaders?
5. Do you know of any weaknesses in the school?
6. Have you got a handle on the school’s finances?
7. Do you think you get value for money?
8. What do you know about the school’s literacy intervention strategies?
9. What do you know about bullying, homophobic and racist issues?
10. Do you get involved in Performance Management?
11. What role do you play in the Headteacher’s Performance Management?
12. Do you know of anybody who hasn’t gone through the Threshold?
13. What Governor training have you been offered/experienced?
14. How would you grade the school?
15. What are the school’s priorities?
16. What is behaviour like in the school?
List of topics covered in the discussion: PSHCE; bullying; SEND; Pupil Premium spend and impact; challenging the Head/SLT; CPD for staff and Governor training; Finances; strengths and weaknesses; priorities; relationship with the LA; progress in core subjects.
Prepare everyone! We held a briefing for the small team of Governors at the end of notification day which proved invaluable. The Inspector described it as the best meeting he had ever had with Governors.
Our students were asked the following questions:
1. What was it like moving from primary school into secondary?
2. How do teachers support you & is there anything available if you need extra help.
3. What do you think of the teaching – do you get copying work or was it active learning.
4. What do you think of school generally? Do you feel safe – are there any areas you are scared to go?
5. Is there bullying in the school & how is it handled & by whom?
6. Are the staff friendly?
7. Are you challenged in lessons & how do you know if you’ve made progress?
8. Is there any extra support in classes?
9. How does the school help you decide what to do for a career?
10. Are you taught about drug/alcohol awareness, homophobia, racism, different types of bullying?
11. What happens if it’s a supply teacher – does the class’ attitude change/were the supply teachers able to control the class?
12. Do you test out new teachers to see what you can get away with?
13. What do you do if you have personal problems? Could school be trusted to be told about such personal matters?
14. Do you have anyone you trust to speak to?
15. Would you recommend school to other students? Why/Why not?
16. What is you favourite subject & why?
17. What do you think is the most important thing about this school?
Marking and feedback are vitally important. I know you know that, but we didn’t completely nail that one, even though in my Preparing for OFSTED blog I wrote, Make sure everyone is following your school’s marking and feedback policy. In teaching and learning terms it’s always been important that students respond to the teachers’ feedback and advice, that there is a feedback loop you can trace. Evidence of such student-response is important to the judgement of teaching and the impact upon students’ learning.
The work scrutiny comprised the work of just eight students: a high ability student; an average ability student; a below average student and a SEND student from both Year 9 and Year 11. Lay your hands on the work as early as possible and ensure that the marking is spot on. However, the emphasis on looking at students’ work during observations obviates the need for huge work scrutinies – if your work sample if exemplary it won’t count for much if every other book the inspectors peruse is devoid of written feedback!
Our weakest readers in Year 9 were a focus for the inspection; we were asked to choose six to read aloud to an inspector. We chose a book they had read in Year 8 and prepped them immediately beforehand so they felt reassured.
Why didn’t we get any Outstanding judgements? If you read the Inspection Handbook Grade Descriptors very carefully, it’s all explicable. You need to make yourself utterly conversant with the Grade Descriptors. Student Achievement needed another year of great results, because Outstanding progress has to be sustained and in OFSTED terms that means for a minimum of two years. That also meant that Leadership and Management could only be Good because the highest levels of achievement and personal development for all pupils [have to be] over a sustained period of time.
Student Achievement will always lag behind the Quality of Teaching. So what about the judgement for teaching, you ask? Well, one of my quibbles was with some of the judgements on teaching. Now, I won’t go into detail because it will be too easy to identify individuals, but I reckon the teaching was better than it was reported, which put the team in a difficult position. If the new Grade Descriptors mean we can only be judged Good for Student Achievement because we need two years of Outstanding data rather than the one we have at the moment, the Quality of Teaching can only be judged Good too, by default. So what do you do as an Inspection Team when there are many more Outstanding lessons than you require for a coherent narrative? Over the two days I think there were seven lessons which were Outstanding in OFSTED terms which the Team had to judge Good to ensure there was a consistent story. One of the lessons taught by a Subject Leader who has never had anything but Outstanding judgements for her teaching, taught a wonderful lesson: the Inspector thought it was Outstanding, the students’ thirst for knowledge was evident, but the pace of the lesson dipped slightly when the students turned the PCs on when they started the practical work; therefore the lesson can only be Good. On the second day ten lessons were observed, four were graded Outstanding, and another five were judged Good, but at least three of those five were probably better than that. Trouble is, too many Outstanding lessons does not fit our Student Achievement story. I’m not criticising the Inspectors at all, just querying the Inspection process. My hypothesis about what happened is the only way I can explain some of the judgements of lessons taught by some of our most talented teachers. Oh, and one of our truly great teachers’ lesson was judged Requiring Improvement because he was short of three pairs of tin snips…


The team themselves admitted that they will rarely be awarding Outstanding judgements for Behaviour and Safety, mainly due to the first sentence of the new criteria for Outstanding Behaviour and Safety which reads, Pupils’ consistently display a thirst for knowledge and a love of learning. We have 1,500 teenagers in our school from the whole range of socio-economic backgrounds; no matter how Growth Mindset I am, I’m not sure every single one of them will be skipping to school in the morning like Basil Fotherington-Thomas:
The thing is, like most state comprehensive schools, we have our fair share of loveable Nigel Molesworths
At Huntington we call aspirational goals Big Hairy Targets. It’s a legacy of my predecessor, Chris Bridge, which has become ingrained into our collective psyche. When we wrote our current SDP nearly a year ago we aimed to have 50% of lessons outstanding by March 2014, a BHT for sure, and an aspiration we were hardly likely to achieve. Well, we were lambasted by our Lead Inspector for setting such a target, when I know for certain that two Lead Inspectors have quoted 60% of lessons need to be judged Outstanding during inspection to secure an overall Outstanding judgement in inspections since September 2013. I did find it hard being criticised so heavily for our ambitious SDP. The first thing any leader knows about development plans is that they are out of date the moment they are published because progress is spiky and things change; I think we would have been more open to criticism if our SDP had lacked ambition.
Fullan on distributed leadership is spot on when he says, Sustainability I think comes from… a leader producing other leaders. I would put as the main mark of a leader …not only the impact they’ve had on student achievement…but also how many good leaders do they leave behind who can carry on who they’ve trained and supported and developed. Our report reflects the work of an incredible staff team prepared to lead at every level rather than the efforts of some heroic headteacher!

The new Grade Descriptors for inspection are incredibly demanding. We are a much better school than when we were last inspected in 2009 when we were judged to be Good with Outstanding features. And I mean MUCH better. And, well into my eleventh year of Headship, I think I am a better Headteacher than I have ever been, yet this was the first time under my leadership that Leadership and Management have been judged merely Good, not Outstanding. Ho hum!
As Headteacher you need to get the conditions for sustained teacher-growth right regardless of whether you have an inspection looming. We could have been inspected in June 2012. I began preparing the staff for inspection on 25 January 2012 under the new Framework where the bar had been raised and only Good is good enough. The past 22 months have seen the most concentrated focus on improving the quality of teaching the school has ever known. Colleagues’ teaching has improved significantly, and, surprise surprise, so have student outcomes! Teachers like Alex Quigley (@HuntingEnglish) amongst many others have grown and thrived. Somehow we have got the conditions for growth pretty well right whilst enduring the sometimes fearsome pressure of an impending OFSTED inspection; the trick now will be to continue to foster the conditions for growth without that external pressure. We need to continue to do the right thing when no-one’s (potentially) looking…
Here’s the report; it’s not nearly as sparkling as the verbal feedback, but OFSTED-vocabulary is limiting. People ask me whether it’s galling to know that under the last OFSTED Framework we would have been securely Outstanding. I reply that I am genuinely unfussed. I know what we are: we are on the cusp of becoming a truly great school. Just as a breast stroke swimmer rises up from the water, and the surface tension of the water remains intact for the briefest moment before the swimmer’s head breaks through, so is our school in its move from good to truly great. If the current OFSTED Framework cannot judge any aspect of our school as Outstanding, then that’s fine; I accept that in a number of significant ways the inspection process is flawed. The fact is, we are what we are and we will just continue to strive to be better, making several marginal gains which, when aggregated, will lead to year-on-year improvement. What I like about the final report most is how the Area for Improvement says, essentially, just carry on with what you are doing because it is working well. That is what made the inspection feel like a moment not an event, just like Zoe Elder says.


Postscript: There are two cracking science PhD research topics which need pursuing. The first one is about the hormones which help us subconsciously know what day of the week it is. For the past six months, 2 pm on a Wednesday, the precise moment when I’ve known an inspection is impossible for that week, has felt like 4 pm on a Friday! A few weeks ago I lay in bed on a Thursday night and told my wife I’d take our youngest to climbing tomorrow. She gently explained to me that the next day was Friday, not Saturday. The other research topic is about the physiological impact on a Headteacher’s bodily functions of an impending OFSTED Inspection; you can use your imagination about that one, because any more detail would be too much detail!

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This post has 9 Comments

  1. An interesting read John – thank you for sharing your experiences.
    A few comments:
    “Well, we were lambasted by our Lead Inspector for setting such a target” – my view is that it’s better to aim for the top of Everest and just fall short than to aim for the foothills and pat yourself on the back for reaching them. That’s true of whole school, subject or individual targets.
    “Trouble is, too many Outstanding lessons does not fit our Student Achievement story.” – I’ve seen this in reverse. The data suggested that the school may by RI and lesson gradings on day 1 tended to be slightly harsh. The ‘data interview’ with inspectors convinced them that the school was actually good rather than RI and suddenly we were asked for a list of our best teachers to be observed on day 2. They then got fair (or even slightly generous) gradings so that the overall pattern matched the grading that the inspectors wished to give the school.
    “Have proof that your data predictions are good” – in that same inspection we were sitting on an odd 3 year pattern of results. Year 1 were solidly good; Year 2 were very poor (certainly RI) and over 10% down on Year 1. Year 3 were over 20% higher than Year 2 and outstanding. We were forecasting something just below these record figures. I was challenged over (and over) again about how likely we were to hit the grades we were forecasting – I was able to bat back every question with hard and fast facts coupled with data – we had historically been poor at forecasting; it had been a school improvement priority; the steps we had taken were this; the accuracy in subjects X, Y and Z is now consistently within a couple of %; in subjects A,B and C it’s higher but we are doing this and the pattern is an improving one; overall our accuracy is now +/-1% for each of the past 3 years. Eventually the questions stopped – the inspector expressed her satisfaction that we would achieve the grades we forecast. [Postscript – we ended up 2% out – wholly because of the GCSE English controversy.]

  2. This is an interesting and really useful read John, which I’m sure will be really useful to others – thank you for sharing in so much depth and with such honesty. I particularly admire your commitment to greatness not ‘Outstanding’ – certainly more worthwhile (and I suspect the judgements will follow in due course).

  3. A great read. I thoroughly enjoy reading your blog and even more so this week, having gone through an inspection on Tues and Weds.
    It’s heartening to read similarities between inspection process. Our team went to great pains to ensure that we felt that they were following the script precisely and inspecting fairly. Having read a lot of horror stories, it was reassuring to feel none of that.
    I completely concur with Zoe Elders moment in time opinion, the world keeps turning after it and I think it can bring a galvanizing impact across the school.
    I too empathise with the 2pm Weds feeling but even better, the feeling after an inspection when on a Sunday, you know you won’t be starting the week anticipating a phone call. Priceless.

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